The Professionalisation of Male Escorting
In August 2016 the human rights organisation Amnesty International voted to support a policy calling for the decriminalisation of ‘prostitution’, payment for sex, and brothel ownership.
In the same month, the world’s largest male escort Web site, Rentboy.com, was dramatically raided in New York, its chief executive and several employees arrested, and the site closed down after two decades in business (The Conversation).
Those two decades saw a revolution in the sex industry – a revolution that has changed the way in which commercial sex is structured and organised. Here we examine the implications of that revolution – with special reference to male sex work – in the context of these two events. More importantly, we note that the next biggest change to occur in sex work is the open acceptance of society that it exists as a form of work and that around the globe it should be decriminalised, with sex workers given human rights and respectful work conditions.
Technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones have increased the reach of the market, and there have been documented increases in numbers of escorts – especially online. Correspondingly, there have been reports of declining numbers of people working in parlours or brothels and from the streets.
At the same time, sex work has been increasingly viewed as an occupation, with those who work in the sex industry seeking to avoid being labelled by outdated terms such as ‘prostitute’. Even the popular media are moving away from the words ‘prostitution’ and ‘prostitutes’ and replacing them with ‘sex work’ and ‘escorts’.
Male sex work has remained less visible than female sex work, partly because it has involved fewer people, and partly because there has been a tendency to associate it exclusively with homosexuality. There has also been a view that, because it involves two men or a man and a paying female client, it is less socially harmful or disruptive than female sex work.
Most estimates suggest that male sex workers comprise only ten percent of the overall industry. There are many indications, however, that their numbers are growing. While technology has facilitated some of this growth, so too have changes in gender relations. For example, some data, such as those collected on this site, suggests that men catering exclusively to female clients comprise about ten percent of the market in male sex work. There is also much to suggest that this share of the market will increase in future decades.
The global data we have derived from Web sites that promote the services of male escorts enable us to make some illuminating observations.
First, we identified 499 sites in 60 countries. While North America and the English language dominate global online exchanges, it is surprising to find that relatively few male escort sites are found there (4%), with Asia dominating the market (37%), followed by Europe (29%) and South America (9%). The relatively low figure for North America, may partly be a product of market monopolisation, with the sex industry less dispersed, and also the legal status of sex work in many jurisdictions and the policing of websites.
Second, the clients include men, women and couples, while some of the sites are only for male clients (57%), some only for female clients (11%), and some for both.
Third, the popularity of some of these sites can be measured by the visit statistics we include.
Fourth, the level of information provided varies considerably between sites, ranging from some sites offering detailed information about the escorts, services offered by the escorts, reviews from clients, multi-language translation, and filter information about how to search for the appropriate escort.
Finally, the number of escorts included in these sites number in the thousands. They vary in ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and body type, with more than half of them (54%) operating as independent agents (i.e., contacted directly by clients to negotiate price and services), and 46% via an agency.
We also include some information about the legality of sex work. As of August 2015, more than three quarters (79%) of these sites were operating in countries where same-sex relations were legal), about 38% in countries where sex work was illegal, and 16% where there was varying legality about sex work.
The recent decision by Amnesty International to support the decriminalisation of the sex industry followed days of intense debate and counter-lobbying, and two years of research and consultation. At the heart of the debate was the issue of whether activities involving rational, consenting adults should be criminalised and policed.
Inseparable from the idea of sex work as a profession is the belief that improvements to the conditions of those working in the sex industry involve broad legal reforms that will have positive impacts on the occupational health and safety of sex workers and their clients. For years, sex workers and sex work advocates around the world have lobbied for improvements to the health and safety of women and men who work in the sex industry, and for more professional and responsible recreational sex services.
As society moves to a more progressive view about sex as a form of leisure, the important consideration is how we position the sex industry as entrepreneurially smart and socially responsible, using communication technologies to enhance the professionalism of this, the oldest business on the planet. Within this context, laws that promote good business practices should be adhered to.
The closure of Rentboy.com by American authorities after it had operated for nearly two decades in plain sight of anyone with access to the Internet leads one to assume that there are more details to this story than are currently available. Given that female sites have not been subject to this level of regulation, an immediate explanation may be that what we are witnessing is a homophobic reaction. However, similar sites offering same-sex services have evaded policing. The downfall of Rentboy may emphasise that those interested in improving the lives of sex workers in Australia and overseas should focus on further creating a professional, open and responsible business sector and supporting the decriminalisation movement.
So the next phase of research into the sex industry need not ask whether sex work is right or wrong, but whether business models can provide for a more professional industry that is both responsible and ethical. In the future we can expect to see more sites like the ones we have identified on this site, but their presentation will be greatly improved. This will include more feedback from clients about the services provided, and more emphasis on quality and product marketing. Equally important the sex work industry can operate more openly and be even more professionally responsible as more countries decriminalise sex work, thus creating a better context for sex work.
We will be soon releasing the next three blogs and others written by academics, escorts, clients, experts from sex work organisations, writers from around the globe. One blog will feature resource material for those who are considering setting up a professional escort career, with insights from people in the profession; the other blogs will discuss women and male escorting; and the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation of sex work.